Process Addictions and Abuse

Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only things that can fuel addictions.

Process addictions refer to behaviors and activities that can be addictive for some individuals. The idea behind this concept is that the behavior is rewarded by the brain as it activates certain chemicals that produce pleasant feelings, reinforcing that behavior and making it more likely that the person will engage in that process again. The chemicals released by the brain’s reward center are similar or identical to those released when a person consumes a drug, therefore causing a kind of addiction.

Many people have heard of at least a couple different types of process addictions, even if they haven’t heard the term. Common process addictions include:

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Sex
  • Internet activity
  • Video gaming
  • Eating
  • Working
  • Exercise

There are many more behaviors that can potentially become addictive, but these are the most common due to how well they tap into that reward response.

Process addictions can be treated, but certain types of this addiction can be very difficult to overcome due to the fact that they’re related to basic needs or activities that are generally necessary to function effectively in modern society. For example, everyone needs to eat, so one can’t overcome a food addiction by avoiding the addictive activity. Shopping and using the Internet are both activities that the typical adult must engage in on a somewhat regular basis.

Because of this, treatment for process addictions will very often include therapy in order to get to the root of why that activity became addictive to the individual in the first place. Treatment will need to be heavily individualized in order to be effective since the nature of process addictions can vary highly from person to person.

Who Suffers from Process Addiction?

getting help from friendsPeople of any age, race, and gender can become addicted to a process. Demographics tend to vary highly depending on the type of behavior involved.

Gambling addiction may be the most common process addiction, with 2 million people in the United States being considered pathological gamblers, according to the National Counsel on Problem Gambling (NCPG). Another 4-6 million are classified as problem gamblers.

This type of process addiction highlights the fact that these addictions can be dangerous or even deadly. Gambling addiction is associated with high self-harm and suicide rates, as people find themselves financially devastated and in complete despair after gambling themselves deep into debt. NCPG has found that one in five problem or pathological gamblers attempts suicide. This is twice the rate as those with other types of addiction.

Middle-aged and elderly people are more prone to developing a gambling addiction due to the fact that casinos tend to target retired persons. Going to a casino can be a great distraction for a retired individual who finds that there is little to do without work to fill up the day. They can find some easy, leisurely pleasure in slot machines, and soon the rewards associated with the simple motion of pulling the level or pushing a button, reinforced by flashing lights and pleasant sounds (as well as money), create an addiction.

Problem gambling is also very popular among homeless individuals. One 2013 study found that 50 percent of homeless individuals are problem gamblers. This often occurs when a non-homeless individual becomes addicted to gambling and loses everything, but previously non-addicted homeless person can become hooked on gambling due to the dream of being able to make enough to rise out of poverty. Unfortunately, many factors make climbing out of homelessness extremely difficult. It can make it seem like only extreme luck can get them there.

Newer process addictions like online surfing and video gaming are, predictably, more likely among young people. Overall rates of addiction in both the US and Europe are somewhere between 1.5 and 8.2 percent, depending on the study. Due to the fact that Internet addiction disorder is so new, there are different criteria between nations. Most of the studies done have also targeted young people, as they are the most likely group to regularly use the Internet and play video games.

When it comes to sex addiction, the disorder covers a wide range of age groups. It can be difficult to determine just how many people are addicted to sex due to the fact that there is so much stigma around the topic. Both addiction and having a lot of sex are still often considered to be vices, especially for certain groups such as women and the elderly. Lately, more women, adolescents, and senior citizens have been seeking treatment for sexual addiction, whereas the group treated the most for this disorder used to be men around age 40-50.

Food addiction, much like other addictions involving our most basic needs, also doesn’t tend to discriminate. The only population that has a higher rate of food addiction is those who classify as obese based on the BMI scale. A 2013 study found that among the individuals in the test group, 5.4 percent could be considered addicted to food. In this study, there were twice as many food-addicted women as men, but other studies have found differing results in terms of gender.

Process Addiction and Substance Abuse

treatment optionsProcess addictions are more likely to occur in those who have struggled with substance addiction, and vice versa. This is not surprising considering the fact that the reward response in the brain is so similar between the two types of addiction. Those who are genetically predisposed to addiction and who have lower impulse control are more vulnerable to addiction, no matter whether it’s to an intoxicant or a behavior. The more you compare the two, the more similarities you find.

At the same time, substance abuse can easily fuel a process addiction. Many commonly abused substances like alcohol reduce inhibitions and increase impulsive behaviors. This is exactly why alcohol is often given out for free at casinos – the numbers show that drunk people gamble more. Indulging in either substance abuse or process addictions can also create further stress and life issues, such as financial difficulties and social stigma, that cause the individual to seek solace in a different addiction. It’s a downward spiral that many people who are vulnerable to addiction find themselves in.

In order to make it easier to diagnose, research, and treat process addictions, some experts have proposed broadening the definition and diagnostic criteria of addiction to be more inclusive. One such criteria set involves six simple factors:

  • Dominance of a person’s life by the substance/activity
  • Euphoria or high derived from the substance/activity
  • Building a tolerance to the substance/activity
  • Unpleasant symptoms created by the cessation of the substance/activity
  • Conflict with oneself or others due to the substance/activity
  • Relapse potential

All of these factors are consistent in both substance and process addictions, and have a significant impact on people’s lives, often requiring treatment in order to recover.

Treatment Options

Effective treatment for process addiction will depend on a number of factors. Addiction in general often co-occurs with other mental illnesses, and this may be even more common with process addictions. Behaviors that can become addictive often begin as an escape from stressful or unpleasant life situations. It’s therefore even more important that process addictions are treated with individual or group therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often the go-to treatment for addictive behavior, as it addresses impulse control issues and maladaptive thought patterns that can lead to addiction.

It’s been found that therapy is most effective when combined with medication, particularly for illnesses like anxiety, depression, and addiction. A therapist may recommend trying a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) in order to regulate the amount of this important chemical in the brain. These medications are very effective for treating mood disorders. The therapy appears to be more effective in the long-term, however. One study found that treatment with medication alone resulted in a 76 percent relapse rate if the medication intake was stopped.

Unlike with some substance addiction disorders, there are no medications approved to directly treat process addictions. However, testing is in progress on a couple drugs that may be effective in treating this type of addiction disorder. Naltrexone, a drug used to treat alcohol and opioid addiction, could be an effective treatment for process addictions due to the fact that the drug blocks receptors in the pleasure centers often involved in both addiction to these substances and to certain activities. Several other mood stabilizers are being reviewed as possible treatments as well, including lithium.

If a substance addiction and process addiction are co-occurring, then both will, of course, need to be addressed. It may be necessary to address the substance addiction first due to the fact that substance abuse can increase impulsiveness and lead right back to the process addiction. It may generally be too stressful to take on both problems at once, but at the same time, many treatments can address both types of addiction, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The best course of action will need to be determined by the client with the help of a medical professional.

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